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February 2, 2000

Late this afternoon, as I was crunching some payroll numbers in Excel, I heard another kind of crunching out my front window. I looked up in time to see a line of cars waiting for the light at the corner. No one was moving except for one little white Toyota, which was pulling around the panel truck in front of it and into the oncoming lane, to get into the left turn lane half a block ahead. Then in the gap in the street that this car had vacated I could see that metal and glass had been strewn across the pavement. After the light changed, I could hear tires rolling over the debris, but no one was acknowledging that it was there.

Apparently the driver of the truck that was hit (if that's what happened) didn't know what had occurred, and whoever was in the Toyota didn't care. Or maybe I imagined the whole thing. The metal and glass might have been there all day, and this was the first time I'd noticed.

Being the involved citizen that I am, I went back to work, looking up every so often as the click-clack of tires crossing metal distracted me. The metal gradually broke up into smaller pieces and was scattered over a wider area. It dawned on me that some real damage could result from flying shrapnel, so I looked around for my shoes. I was ready to do a quick policing of the area, but someone beat me to it. A pedestrian passing by risked his own well-being by crossing the street, then darting out into the roadway and retrieving the larger chunks.

This is actually what I'd expected to happen. I can see strangers doing unexpected kindnesses for each other every time I leave my house. But it's rarely anyone protected behind the armor of a vehicle who shows compassion. I'm afraid it's true even of myself, although less so now than when I was younger and angrier at the world. Once I'm transformed into the Iron Robot, I become a different person, demanding and unyielding. You wouldn't know me. My language gets more colorful and expressive. No one hears, of course, because I'm inside the metal box. And since I'm all talk, I never get into trouble for what I say.

Yesterday afternoon a skinny young fellow on a bicycle, dressed in the tight, bright apparel that allows bikers to be seen from blocks away, skidded up against the curb and toppled over in about the same place as today's incident. He wasn't hurt, but he had an awful time scrambling out of the way and disentangling himself from his vehicle. Most people, I have to admit, gave him plenty of room to right himself.

Unfortunately for him, this was about the same time the local high school lets out, and there was a pickup-load of boys who thought this was the most hilarious scene ever. To his credit, he didn't acknowledge the catcalls, even after they got more raucous as he tripped over himself trying to stand up. They slowed as they passed him, but as entertained as they were, he was having none of it. He did finally manage to mount his bike and get gingerly on his way.

You don't have to fall off a bike to be the victim of verbal abuse from passing cars. That's why I choose carefully the times I walk to the post office and back every day. I prefer the low-traffic periods, although that's more for physical safety than out of any fear of embarrassment. I've managed to get past that sort of anxiety, now that I know for sure that I'm ridiculous. No use trying to hide it.

I wouldn't have been as stoic in the bicyclist's situation. In my younger years I would have tried to crawl under the sidewalk. (I also wouldn't have been wearing the attention-grabbing gear.) Now, though, I would probably wave or shrug it off. It's amazing how much easier life gets once you stop trying to impress people you don't even know.

If I'd known tonight's episode of The West Wing was a rerun, I wouldn't have planned my evening around it. Once it started, I watched it again. On a show this complex, you can pick up some nuances you missed the first time around. It was interesting to see how the characters have developed, or at least how comfortable the actors have grown in their roles, since this early episode.

I can't help it, this show gets to me. By the final scene, I'm often a puddle of sobbing emotion. As an unrepentant, old-fashioned liberal (hey! I think I'll use that in the bio), I'm looking at this like political pornography. It's not real, it'll never happen, but it makes me feel good, vicariously anyway. If only real life were that way. If only politicians were so genuinely caring and committed. If the good guys could only win as often as they do on this show. Half as often.

Then the news comes on and reality socks me in the gut.

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